How sustainable engineering will secure a better world for longer

sustainable engineering

Sustainability. It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot these days, sustainable engineering in particular. Sustainable engineering involves designing or operating systems (think water supply, energy, transport and much more) with the environment and future generations in mind. It’s all about supporting and maintaining environmental balance and human life.

For Engineers Australia, the national engineering body, sustainability is at the heart of engineering. “For our members, sustainability means that future generations will enjoy environmental, social and economic conditions that are equal to or better than those enjoyed by the present generation,” says the organisation.

The big picture aim is to develop engineering solutions that repair and regenerate the environment, as well as improving human life by reducing social inequalities. 

Check out the sustainability goals below and how engineering solutions are helping to kick them.

sustainable engineering

Sustainable goal: Clean power

Sustainable engineering solution: 

Renewable energy is the name of the game here! Sustainable sources of energy (think wind, solar thermal, photovoltaics [solar panels], hydro and geothermal) will be key to transition away from our fossil-fuel based energy system. Check out more about jobs in renewable energy here and here

Engineers are all about innovation, and when it comes to clean power, they’ve got some tricks up their sleeves. Chemical engineer Dr Jessica Allen is designing novel fuel cells, while mechanical engineering graduate Alex Post is working on new energy storage with solar thermal. 

Plus, software engineers and data scientists are making sure renewables can deliver power 24/7 (even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing) – check out more about smart energy

sustainable engineering
Darren Lomman, founder of GreenBatch.

Sustainable goal: Eliminate waste

Sustainable engineering solution:  

It’s no secret that plastic is a problem. With over 448 million tonnes produced globally in 2015, only about 20 per cent was estimated to be recycled. In fact, of the plastic waste produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9 per cent was recycled. While reducing production and consumption is key to tackling the problem, engineers are also working on novel solutions to cleaning up the waste.

Mechanical engineer Darren Lomman is setting up a reprocessing facility in Perth that recycles PET bottles into 3D printer filament for schools and there’s been a great response – follow the GreenBatch plant on FB

Some up-and-coming future engineers already have developed amazing inventions that cut plastic waste, from Minh Nga Nguyen’s water filter/plant fertiliser hybrid made from plastic waste to Angelina Aurora’s biodegradable plastic.

sustainable engineering
E-waste is a growing problem.

Sustainable goal: Manage natural resources

Sustainable engineering solution: 

Did you know that making just one desktop computer requires 1.6 tonnes of raw materials? To produce each chip (the core processing unit), at least 1.6 kg of fossil fuels are released, and over 1500 litres of water are needed. That’s a lot of resources! Even more worryingly, levels of e-waste from unwanted appliances and tech are rising. 

Luckily, engineers are working on green manufacturing solutions, which involves making each stage of the product life cycle as sustainable as possible. The first step is minimising the amount of raw materials needed to make the product. Next is reducing the amount of energy needed to manufacture the product (and using clean energy where possible). Finally, the product should be recycled as much as possible at the end of its lifetime. 

Find out more about the UNSW Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT)’s goal to eliminate e-waste.

sustainable engineering
ANU grad Rebecca Watts in Cambodia with Engineerings Without Borders.

Sustainable goal: Help the developing world

Sustainable engineering solution: 

From sanitation systems to water infrastructure and access to electricity, opportunities abound for engineers interested in humanitarian projects. Non-profit organisations like Engineers Without Borders Australia connect volunteers with local and international projects, where they can use their skills to make a real difference. 

EWB Australia director Kelsie Clarke has been involved since her first year of uni. She’s taken part in a study tour to Cambodia to explore water infrastructure projects and worked with a WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) Team based in Vietnam. “The mission is to build a better life for people, using engineering skills to build a better world,” says Kelsie.

ANU graduate Rebecca Watts joined Engineers Without Borders to provide clean, affordable power for 20 households and a school in Ta Ping, a village in Cambodia. “Working with local entrepreneurs, I was able to source good-quality solar panels and share information about renewable energy,” she says.

There’s heaps of humanitarian startups in engineering too. University of Sydney student Zarif Aziz travelled to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, to intern for engineering startup Okra Solar, which aims to give remote villages access to clean, cheap and reliable electricity.

sustainable engineering
Everyone can get involved with the Techfugees Hackathons.

Sustainable goal: Safer communities

Sustainable engineering solution:  

Sustainability isn’t just about preserving the natural environment, but also reducing social inequalities and building safer communities.

Zoe Condliffe, founder of She’s A Crowd and a PhD candidate at Monash University’s XYX lab, is a gender advocate using digital mapping to make change by addressing gender-based violence. 

Her digital mapping tool ‘Free To Be’, gathers first-hand stories of girls and young women in five major cities (Sydney, Delhi, Kampala, Lima and Madrid) to identify places where street harassment and attacks occur. That data is then aggregated and analysed to form in-depth insights into where gender-based violence occurs and help planners rethink city spaces with women in mind. 

Engineering and tech solutions with social impact are everywhere. Non-profit organisation Techfugees connects software engineers & tech wizards with new and settled refugees to come up with issues faced by asylum seekers. Anyone can get involved in their Hackathons – check out their FB for more details. 

The latest issue of Careers with STEM: Engineering has the lowdown on engineers building a builder world right now, plus check out every engineering job we could think of!

Larissa Fedunik-Hofman

Author: Larissa Fedunik-Hofman

Larissa is the editorial assistant for Careers with STEM and a Chemistry PhD student. Larissa’s goal is to promote public engagement with STEM through inspiring stories.

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